Monday, March 24, 2014

Lying: Sin, Developmental Milestone, or Both?

Teaching a child to tell the truth is more complicated than it sounds. It requires more thought than a simple rule.

My grandmother told whoppers, and her daughters knew it. The four of them were caught fleeing Nazi Germany. They weren't Jews: they were simply a widow and three homeless children trying to survive. They had to live in a Danish refuge camp where nurses gave them "health shots." My grandmother suspected they were experimental vaccines after a few children died. She figured that, if her girls missed a couple of shots, the nurses would lose interest in them. On the day of the next set of rounds, my grandmother found a ditch, had the girls lie down, and covered them in leaves. She told them that she was going to pretend she didn't know where they were when the nurse came. She told them that, no matter how much she called, they were to be still as mice. They could come out only when she came and removed the leaves.

My grandmother was right. After missing a couple of shots, the nurses stopped paying them visits. She and her daughters survived the war.

Mason taught morals through the Bible, biography, and poetry because of their complexity. While the Bible doesn't condone lying, heroes of the faith lied. The midwives' lies in Exodus let the Jewish people flourish. Rahab lied and helped the Israelites topple a tyrant. Like my grandmother, Elisha lied during wartime. While these lies served a purpose, the Bible neither justifies them nor excuses them.

Morever, telling lies is a developmental milestone. Children younger than three don't intentionally lie. "Lying is a cognitive signal that people understand what others are thinking." Children can lie when they have language, theory of mind, self-regulation, and the connection between rules and their consequences. Some people with autism are unable to lie if they don't realize that others have their own thoughts, feelings, plans, and perspectives. They assume everyone knows what they think, know, and feel.

Mason's educational view of lying and other moral issues makes sense.
Some time ago I was present at an interesting discussion, among the members of an educational society, on the subject of children's lies. It was interesting to notice that the meeting, consisting of able, educated people, divided itself into those who held that children were born true and those who held that they were born false; it did not occur to anybody to recall his own childhood, or even to reflect on his own condition at the present moment (page 129-130).
Mason wasn't making a theological point (in case you're wondering about original sin, total depravity, and all that).

Very young children are incapable of lying because they lack the cognitive abilities, not because of their innocence. Once all the pieces are in place, they can and do lie. The delays in development found in autism highlight this. Because of her aphasia, it's hard to tell if Pamela lies. Stating something with inaccuracy has more to due with language stumbling blocks than morality. I know a boy who has all the pieces in place except theory of mind: he speaks well; he understands consequences; he sneaks when he's trying to break a rule. He is brutally honest. If you ask him if he did something, he admits it freely and openly. I suspect his first lie will be the one typical of toddlers: the punishment-escaping variety.

Mason discussed this kind of lie in the chapter entitled "Mrs. Sedley's Tale" in her book, Formation of Character. Mason saw the source as moral cowardice: the child has done wrong but is afraid to confess. She recommended parents address a wrongful deed in an encouraging manner: "Make sure of your ground, then show her the pieces; say the vase was precious, but you do not mind about that; the thing that hurts you is that she could not trust her mother." We invite our children to trust us, so that we can help them address the wrong without complicating it with lies. As their best guide and advocate, we can help them repair the situation when we know the truth. Our role model is our wise, gentle God, unconditionally loving, readily forgiving.

What about inventive, creative lies? Developmentalists compare it to exploring new spaces. "They explore this new mental playground as well. Kids will lie about their names, the color of the dogs, their favorite foods — just to see what happens." Mason's solution is two-fold.

1. "Teach her truth, as you would teach her French or sums––a little to-day, a little more to-morrow, and every day a lesson" (page 83). Develop the art of accurately narrating in lessons: narration, picture study, nature study, even math. The other day, one of our students with autism and aphasia was narrating a story to me. When he got to the part about the kite being stuck in the tree, he chuckled. Then, he said, "The sun eat the kite." I played along with him at first because he was communicating the nonverbal component of telling a whopper beautifully: a playful grin, a twinkle in his eye, a knowing look. I gave him a funny look, and he tried again, "The moon eat the kite!" I played along, winked, and said, "The kite got stuck on a cow's horn." He laughed out loud. Then, we got serious and he narrated what really happened to the kite.

2. "An imperious imagination like Fanny's demands its proper nourishment. Let her have her daily meal: 'The Babes in the Wood,' 'The Little Match-Girl,' 'The Snow-Maiden,' tales and legends half-historic" (page 83). Show children the proper playground for inventive, creative lies. Let them play freely and let them exercise their imagination. Let them explore imaginary worlds in books where anything can happen. (For a literary treatment on the topic of what purely factual education does to the mind, read Hard Times by Charles Dickens or problems Eustace Clarence Scrubb encountered in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)

Older children struggle with the lie that covers for a friend. My alma mater expelled people for lying because of its strict honor code ("A midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal"). The dilemma occurred when a roommate broke a regulation and then asked others to lie. The rule breaker usually faced marching tours, extra room inspections, and uniform inspections if caught. The liar was expelled unless the liar was a junior or senior. In that case, a liar enlisted in the Navy to pay back two or three years of college. Such a harsh punishment didn't deter lying for a friend.

I was lucky because my roommate believed in putting her roommates above herself. When she felt like going out for a night on the town (against regulation, of course), she hid her civilian clothes in a book bag, put on her uniform, and headed out the door. She never told us where she was going. We assumed that she needed quiet time at the library. When asked about her whereabouts, I could truthfully say, "I think she went to the library." She was a true friend because she never put us in a position of having to lie for her.

Authority has a great deal to do with lying. In our broken world, sometimes those in authority put us in a position where lying seems to be the "best" option. My grandmother lied to save her children. Rahab lied to avoid breaking a promise she made to the spies. The midwives lied to avoid killing babies. These lies are justifiable in our own eyes but regrettable because God intended us to be truthful in a perfect world.

One post cannot possibly cover more sophisticated aspects of lying. The articles "Liar, Liar, Neurons Fire" and "Is Lying Always Wrong?" offer more food for thought. For a rigorous reformed theological treatment, read this article by Wayne Grudem.


Amber said...

Your post reminded me of something I read recently in a book called Learning the Virtues in the section about truthfulness. "Those who exercise violence have no right to demand the truth, and they know that they cannot expect it. Violence causes speech to lose its meaning."

My children and I had a good discussion about this yesterday when reading the Winged Watchman. Those who would injure because of the truth have no right to the truth. The idea that lying could be acceptable in certain circumstances was interesting for my children to consider - although it is certainly something that takes thought and discernment! I will have to remember to mention what you said about not giving people enough information that they would have to lie for you - that seems an important part of that discussion too.

Your point about what it takes to be capable of lying is an interesting one, I hadn't considered it from that angle.

walking said...

Lying is a sin and is not excused in the Bible. However, when authority goes beyond its proper boundaries, then we are tempted to lie to protect others. It is not acceptable that authority has put us in that position and it is also not acceptable that we felt we had to lie. Are there other options? Say nothing? Tell the truth and put full faith in God. It is easy to blog but is it easy to do in real life when the lives of your children may be at stake?

Bonnie said...

My high school students struggled with lying in the Bible. Would they lie if their family was being hidden from the Germans? Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister. Wouldn't everything have turned out different if he had not? It is complex when there are times when God permitted lying. BUT I did pray for my children's sins to find them out. I hope most did and I was astounded when confessions happened. Thank you for this post.

walking said...

Then, the even harder question. If we truly trusted God for everything, wouldn't we just tell the truth?

Mama Squirrel said...

Depends, too, about how much information you need to give for it to count as truth, and when giving more than asked for is just inviting trouble, or violating someone else's privacy. Like in situations where snitching is rewarded by the authorities.

Carol said...

There was an incident in The Hiding Place where Corrie's sister-in-law refused to lie to the Nazis about hiding Jews. Her belief was God would protect them if they told the truth -Corrie ten Boom didn't agree with her but God did protect her in this instance.